Category Archives: Middle Eastern

The Wall by William Sutcliffe

WallIn an unnamed conflict zone – not unlike the challenging, changing borders of Israel and Palestine – 13-year-old Joshua lives in a new settlement community, Amarias, surrounded by a guarded, barbed-wired wall. Too soon after his father’s violent death, his mother desperately married Joshua’s now-stepfather who considers himself their savior.

During an afternoon of play, Joshua’s new soccer ball goes out of bounds, thanks to a friend who runs off after refusing to retrieve it. In his search, Joshua discovers a hidden tunnel that takes him to the other side of the wall. Chased by a viciously angry mob of older boys, he’s saved by a young girl, Leila, who then helps him return to Amarias. Before they part, she asks him for food.

Back in relative safety, Joshua can’t stop worrying about Leila, struck by how different her life is from his own of plenty and privilege. His determination to repay her help sets off a chain of events that makes Joshua question everything he’s been taught to believe. From borrowed sandals to the tiniest olive tree sapling to the challenges of buying enough aspirin, The Wall presents two communities living right up against each other, yet separated by a seemingly unbreachable divide. One brave young boy attempts to make the great leap …

While The Wall doesn’t name countries, the fictional settlement’s name, Amarias, is an anagram for Samaria, which today refers to the northern part of the West Bank. British novelist William Sutcliffe (who happens to be married to fellow novelist Maggie O’Farrell!) describes himself as a “Jewish atheist.” After his participation at Palfest [Palestine Festival of Literature] in 2010, Sutcliffe told The Guardian in an April 2013 interview, “everything I thought I knew about Israel was shattered. Seeing a military occupation up close, seeing a small number of people with guns telling a large number without guns what to do … it was so much more brutal than I thought it could be.”

Published originally across the Pond with two different covers – one aimed for adult readers, the other for a younger audience – The Wall is an indelible, nuanced portrayal of young lives caught between complicated, opposite ‘sides.’ Sutcliffe offers no easy answers, and leaves a wide berth for plenty of questions. To read his book is to look beyond your own walls, to seek experiences beyond your comfort zone, and be inspired to follow your own moral compass as best as you can.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar

Anatomy of a DisappearanceHisham Matar’s second novel (following his much-lauded, substantially-awarded debut, In the Country of Men) reads like a fast-moving dream, events jarringly, jaggedly forced together, and yet somehow managing to maintain a clear, thoughtful narrative. Narrator Steve West’s methodically-paced, calmly-controlled voice imbues Matar’s haunting story with dignity and gravitas.

Disappearance, absence, displacement loom large throughout Nuri’s life. Even as a young boy, what Nuri knows of his Cairo home is already a compromised existence-in-exile as a result of his father’s political past. When his mother dies, his father remarries a vibrant young woman named Mona whom the 12-year-old Nuri claims as his own upon first sight. Sent away to an exclusive English boarding school, Nuri is separated from all that is familiar, including the devoted servant girl who helped raise him.

And then his father disappears, in 1972 when Nuri is just 14. That loss becomes the single defining event of Nuri’s life; in the desperate, unending search to discover what happened, both Nuri and Mona learn as many truths about themselves, and each other, as about the distant, enigmatic man who once held them tenuously together.

The missing parent looms large in both of Matar’s titles, telling proof that he writes what he knows: Matar lost his own father, a Libyan dissident, to a politically motivated kidnapping in 1990; decades later, the elder Matar remains missing.

In a January 2010 article for the UK’s Guardian, Matar wrote about learning that his father was seen “‘[f]rail, but well’” in 2002 in a secret prison, although the news took eight years to reach the surviving family: ” … weeks from finishing that novel [Anatomy], I learn that my father, who disappeared 20 years ago, might be alive … Uncanny how reality presses against that precious quiet place of dreaming. As if life is jealous of fiction.” Fictional as Anatomy claims to be, echoing his literary stand-in Nuri, Matar holds on to his father’s coat waiting for his someday-return. “Maybe it still fits him,” he muses.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Arab, British, Egyptian, European, Middle Eastern

Jerusalem: A Family Portrait by Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertozzi, based on a story by Boaz Yakin and Moni Yakin, with art director Chris Sinderson

Jerusalem famly portraitSome years back, during a discussion about what was then the latest tragic news coming out of the Middle East, a friend’s mother softly remarked about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, “The absolute worst arguments happen among families.” She (the widow of conservative rabbi) was referring specifically to the shared Abrahamic ancestry of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. From Cain and Abel onward, too much of history – and not just religious history – has proven the truth in Mommy’s simple statement.

Welcome to Jerusalem, “… a stubborn little slab of reality that nevertheless shimmers like a mirage before the eyes of both the made and the sane, united them into a single brotherhood of dreamers, murderers, and poets.” The ‘family’ of the subtitle is the Halaby clan, originally from Syria, who arrive in the foothills of Jerusalem in 1893. A half century later, the family is bookended by two sons with four sisters in between: the elder, Yakov, is a wealthy community leader; Izak, six years younger, is always on the verge of ruin, mostly at the hands of his own brother. Yakov’s childhood animosity – “… overcome by jealousy at the attention lavished on his brother, [Yakov] vowed never to allow Izak a moment’s peace” – remains a trenchant reality, even into middle age.

During the violent, tumultuous 1940s leading up to the declaration of an independent state of Israel in 1948, the Halaby brothers and their families live vastly different lives. Yakov manages to maintain stability and comfort – luxury, even – all the while tormenting Izak, even causing his brother’s imprisonment when Izak is unable to keep up with loan payments. While Izak is virtually powerless, his angry, often cruel, wife desperately tries to keep her family together. Their sons’ reactions to their threatened lives vary significantly: one joins hands with his Muslim neighbors to serve the Communist Party, one leaves the family to fight abroad, one becomes entangled with an extremist anti-British underground network, and the youngest grows his reputation as a street hoodlum. The neverending conflict beyond the disparate Halabys is magnified within their relationships with one another … in spite of glimmering moments of haunting hope, tragedy proves inevitable – again and again and again.

“Inspired by stories told to him by his father,” author Boaz Yakin – perhaps better known as a filmmaker (Now You See Me, Prince of PersiaRemember the Titans) – unwinds the Halaby history with unflinching detail, brought to the page by veteran graphic illustrator Nick Bertozzi whose images never stand still. As in too many families in conflict, winners and losers prove indiscernible … the only truth is that people suffer, and always, the children most of all.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Israeli, Jewish, Middle Eastern

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid

House of StoneThe late Anthony Shadid is back in the headlines today with happy news: the double-Pulitzer winner’s resonating memoir is one of the autobiography finalists for the National Book Circle Critics awards for the publishing year of 2012House of Stone recounts Shadid’s restoration of his great-grandfather’s home in old Marjayoun “in what it is now Lebanon,” all the while recounting his family’s journey from a troubled ancestral country to a reinvented life based in Oklahoma, U.S.A. The memoir is even more poignant that it was published just after his sudden death on February 16, 2012, from an asthma attack while he was on assignment in Syria; the scheduled March 27 publication date was moved to February 28. That looming, tragic death becomes an unintended character throughout.

Generations ago, Isber Samara, born in 1872 – “a rich man born of a poor boy’s labors” – built a house of stone. He “left it for … his family, to join us with the past, to sustain us, to be the setting for stories.” On the other side of the world, his American great-grandson Shadid, well understood the importance of bayt: “Bayt translates literally as house, but its connotations resonate beyond rooms and walls, summoning longings gathered about family and home. In the Middle East, bayt is sacred. Empires fall. Nations topple. Borders may shift or be realigned. Old loyalties may dissolve, or, without warning, be altered. Home, whether it be structure or familiar ground, is, finally, the identity that does not fade.”

In July 2006, war brought Shadid to Marjayoun and left behind a half-exploded Israeli rocket in the second story of Isber’s house. What the original stonemasons had considered “impenetrable” a century earlier, “with new technologies and old antagonisms in play, there is nothing war cannot crumble in a heartbeat.” Shadid did not abandon the family bayt: he planted a splindly, hope-filled olive tree, determined that Isber’s house would remain “a house worth care.”

When Shadid’s own nuclear family falls apart – his marriage ends, he is separated from his only child – he returns to Marjayoun in August 2007 with “foolish and rash … not to mention reckless, dangerous, and altogether ‘American’” intentions: to rebuild Isber’s house. His odyssey is filled with a cast of encouraging, truculent, self-important, even comical characters, many distantly related, of course. Through reconstruction over the next nine months, Shadid, an internationally renowned journalist who escaped violent threats, survived bullet and kidnappings, who has “never been the type to stay home,” restores his own self, as well.

History – both personal and political – seems forever intertwined in the volatile Middle East. Shadid’s superb journalistic acuity, his determination to honor his ancestors by preserving the past for future generations, his longing for his young daughter Laila, all meld together to create a gorgeous patchwork of family and country, of leaving and return, and most of all, of stories worth preserving.

Tidbit: The ONE thing I really missed in the book were pictures, especially of the house. But, thanks to googlemagic, you can share Shadid’s renovations in a 10-part series, starting with Chapter 1: “Returning Home” by clicking here. How sadly surreal to have Shadid be your tour guide …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Lebanese, Lebanese American, Middle Eastern

The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau

Book of JonasNeed the verdict first? READ THIS.

Stephen Dau‘s The Book of Jonas is one of those rare, shattering, lingering, breathtaking-at-unexpected-moments debut novels that arrive so perfectly formed you’re left both haunted (wondering what you could possibly read next to dispel the terror) and grateful (utterly so, that you were provided this literary gift).

The Book is actually not a single story, but three: Jonas, who reinvents himself from a sole survivor of his unnamed Middle Eastern (as written on the inside book jacket) or Central Asian (seemingly Afghan by description) village into an American-in-the-making; Christopher, a U.S. soldier stationed far from home, both taking and saving lives, who confesses his wartime actions in a hidden leather journal; and Rose, Christopher’s mother who still waits, if not for her son, then for some semblance of answers. To tell you more of the sparse, intricate narrative would surely be an injustice to your own discovery …

That said, might I share a few suggested details that might enhance your reading … although, I also encourage you to go directly to the book (via the page or stuck in your ears, so elegantly voiced by audible favorite Simon Vance) – I won’t take your redirection personally.

The title clearly indicates the importance of names: “Jonas” is a form of Jonah – as in ‘ … and the whale’ – and is as an Anglicization of the Arab name Younis/Yūnis; Christopher is the patron saint of travelers who protects against accidents and sudden death, usually depicted with a child in his arms. The good book is presented not unlike the religious text it suggests, its chapters marked from “Processional” to “Recessional,” with “Communion,” “Confession,” and “Benediction” in between.

The so-called “inerrant word of God” is filled with “internal inconsistencies,” and “the writings themselves live in metaphor, that they seek not to convey factual information, but to reveal larger truths.” The same might be said of the best fiction.

“‘Unfortunately … our country sometimes has a habit of making a mess with its left hand and cleaning it up with its right.’” Or at least tries to … except that in war, the question of ‘how’ gets impossibly blurred as collateral damage exponentially multiplies.

Pay attention to forms: “For everything he needs to do, there seems to be a corresponding form. …[T]he average person living in America will spend six months filling out forms.”

But be wary of easy labels: Victim, perpetrator, terrorist, refugee, criminal, man, boy, human, alien, arsonist, fireman, archivist, vandal, outsider – “He can neither place himself into context, nor can he be placed.”

And, if you got this far, heed the final word: READ.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Middle Eastern, Nonethnic-specific

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

If you feel a vague sense of déjà vu reading this novel, that may be because, like me, you’re strongly reminded of another dual-timed story featuring a bold Englishwoman trekking through faraway lands whose expectations-be-damned!-uncommon-life-back-then is pieced together through left-behind words and pictures by a descendant living now. While more than one book might fit that description, the title I’m specifically recalling is Ahdaf Soueif‘s 1999 Booker Prize shortlisted The Map of Love

Here, ‘then’ belongs to 1923 and Evangeline English – who could not be more ironically named. Never far from her trusty bicycle, she finds herself traveling to Kashgar, East Turkestan (in today’s western China), where the sight of “a woman riding [said bicycle] is simply unimaginable.” She and her “unadventurous” younger sister Lizzie have escaped the “damp, phlegmatic dreariness of an English winter” to accompany the fiery Millicent Frost (oh these names!), a woman blinded by her missionary zeal, more arrogant bulldog than convincing emissary. Early into their journey, the trio discovers a young local girl, 10 or 11, “with a belly as ripe as a Hami melon.” Millicent delivers a tiny baby right there in the desert, but loses the young mother in childbirth. “[We] find ourselves in a situation,” Evangeline writes on the first page, one that eventually continues into “London, Present Day.”

In central London, peripatetic Frieda (take note of that name, as well) has just returned from her latest “research job”-assignment. In the wee hours of a lonely first night home, she gives up on waiting for her unreliable married lover, and instead finds a strange man sitting just outside her door. Instead of calling for help, she silently passes him a blanket and pillow; in the morning, she finds a drawing of a large bird she doesn’t recognize on the wall next to her door. Later that day, she will open her life to another complete stranger, the late Irene Guy who has inexplicably named Frieda her ‘next-of-kin,’ whose possessions Frieda must be clear out from her in-demand Council flat (subsidized government housing) within the week.

Dislocation, secrets, misconnections, legacies, incompatible pairings … and, mysterious birds (!), all play a part in this multi-pronged, multi-cultured, multi-perspective journey of discovery, even if questions outnumber eventual answers. I should also add that discovery might be best enjoyed unmitigated; narrator Susan Duerden gives Frieda an impossibly young, thoroughly grating persona which surely doesn’t exist on the page.

For would-be writers, Suzanne Joinson explains on her website “About” page how the purchase of “a box of letters from Deptford Market in London” led her to writing a short story about her “quest to find out who [the letters] belonged to.” The story won a prize generous enough to buy a laptop and provide a year’s mentoring which led to writing this debut novel. In both Map and Guide, connecting such mysterious letters are – no surprisingly – integral to the storytelling. Joinson herself adds a useful moral for literary wannabes: “go to flea markets! And car boots … and don’t get me started on the buried stories to be found in second hand and thrift shops.” Bestselling inspiration indeed.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees by Deborah Ellis

Bestselling Canadian anti-war activist Deborah Ellis‘s four nonfiction titles (thus far) for younger readers should be bundled together and sent to every policymaker throughout the world. Two of those four, Kids of Kabul: Living Bravely through a Never-Ending War and Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speakgive voice to children living in active war zones. Off to War: Voices of Soldiers’ Children features the children left behind in the United States and Canada by deployed military. Children of War looks at lives attempting to be reclaimed by surviving families who have fled a war-torn homeland for an often unwelcoming new country.

Hibba, 16: “I have nothing in common with American children. How could I? They are raised up with peace and fun and security. … We are raised with war and fear. It’s a big difference.”

Michael, 12: “I think it would make the world better if people had to fix the things they broke. Like, if someone bombs your house, they couldn’t go away and do things they wanted to do until they built you a new house and fixed what they broke.”

Sara, 15: “We all miss our homeland. We had friends there, and lives that could have been wonderful.”

Eva, 17: “Hating people is not part of our culture, but the war is sending people back to the dark ages It is destroying who we are. Iraqis love sports and literature, and poetry and science, and gardens, all good things. Iraqis don’t like all this killing.”

Iraq is a young country, gaining independence in 1932, although the civilization that originated there is one of the world’s oldest, its ancient glory buried in the hanging gardens of Babylon, its written literary history dating back over 2000 years with the Epic of Gilgamesh. Tragically, Iraq’s recent history is defined by violence and war, from the eight-year Iran-Iraq War that began in 1980, to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 which sparked the First Gulf War, to the post-9/11 U.S. invasion in 2003.

While Ellis provides important political and historical context here, Ellis’ focus is clearly on the  youngest victims: “The children in this book are mostly refugees who fled Iraq because of the war and were living in Jordan in the fall of 2007.” She chose Jordan “simply because the entry process was easier than for Syria.” Five million Iraqis were displaced by war, 3 million were unable to leave Iraq and live in remote tent camps; many of the survivors able to get out went to Jordan and Syria.

Nearly a decade has passed since Saddam Hussein was deposed. And yet the troubled nation remains in the headlines for the seemingly unending sectarian violence. The majority of those surviving children are no more, having grown into troubled adulthood. What now? What now?

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Canadian, Iraqi, Middle Eastern

A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return by Zeina Abirached, translated by Edward Gauvin

Once again, I start from book’s end, with the “About the Author” page which introduces war-child Zeina Abirached, whose first 10 years of life were spent surviving Beirut’s civil war (1975-1990). As an adult, she happened upon a 1984 documentary that included “[a] woman whose home had been hit by the bombings [who] spoke a single sentence that startled her: ‘You know, I think maybe we’re still more or less safe here.’” That woman was Abirached’s own grandmother. “At that moment, she knew she had to tell the story of their lives in Beirut.”

Zeina and her younger brother are waiting for their parents to return home. They’re just a few streets away, visiting their maternal grandmother, but navigating the Beirut streets requires “complicated and perilous choreography.” The children have never known a life without war. Their apartment has been closed off room by room for safety, until all essentials have been piled into the small foyer. Not only does the family gather there, but their neighbors often arrive to wait out the shellings and bombings as it’s the safest space in the entire building.

Tonight, Anhala, an older woman who has raised multiple generations of the family with whom she has lived for decades, is the first to come down to make sure the children are safe on their own. To distract them, she gets the children to help bake a sfouf, her favorite cake. Next comes Chucri, the building’s go-t0, fix-it man, bearing blankets and washed lettuce (produce is scarce, as is the water to wash it). Then Ernest – who has never left the building since his twin brother’s death – taps on the door, ready with the next scene from Cyrano de Bergerac. The foyer is soon cozy with the rest of the building’s neighbors … but still the children wait for their parents to arrive safely home.

Over the course of a single night, Abirached reveals the challenging lives of each of the inhabitants. Told through the clear eyes of a young child, the absurdity of war is magnified – with innocent humor and horrific tragedy, not unlike Marjane Satrapi‘s Persepolis and her memories of her Iranian childhood in Iran. Abirached details the hours spent taking turns waiting to get an elusive dial tone on the phone: the parents smoking themselves into a smoke screen, the children laughing and playing clapping games until the sudden interruption of a connection. Meanwhile, Chucri spends his days in one snaking line after another for everything from bread to matches to gas for the building’s generator, hoping someday he might learn something about his long-missing father. Monsieur Khaled dreams up stories of life before war, insisting he’s from Texas, the “farthest place he could think of,” but chose life in Beirut only because of true love. The unique typeface – blunt, block capitals with a very distinct use of dots over the ‘i’ and inside the ‘o’ (think bullseye!) – is eerily representative of the random potshots happening outside, a reminder in every panel that war is never far.

While violence never ends, somehow, people must still live their lives … and survive. “To die  To leave  To return / It’s a game for swallows,” a graffitti-ed wall shouts. Even the youngest children recognize the absurdity of war … why doesn’t everyone else?

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Memoir, .Translation, Lebanese, Middle Eastern

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Since Craig Thompson‘s Habibi hit shelves last week (official release date was last Tuesday, September 20), I guess the secret of its magnificence is out … in some inexplicable fit of utter possessiveness, I’ve been holding on to the galley which arrived in June (and was consumed without pause upon receipt).

So awestruck am I that only clichéd phrases spurt forth: the sweeping sands of time (always wanted to use that one!), timeless love story, larger-than-life, epic journey. Indeed, Habibi is all that, but minus the babbling clichés. With gorgeous panes in constant flowing motion over almost 700 pages, Thompson creates a shocking, unforgettable original for sure.  

Truly less is more here, so a few early details are all I will divulge (I don’t want to be responsible for ruining your personal discovery). At 9, a girl is sold in marriage to a much older man who teaches her to read and write, then witnesses his murder. Three years later, she’s living in an abandoned boat in the desert, mother to a little boy clearly not hers by birth. Their stories will eventually separate – and each will live through so much – and unexpectedly intertwine … and then repeat.

Thompson superbly weaves in the overlapping narratives of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity (subtle, yet effective reminders of a shared heritage that should unite, not divide), and the everyday power of storytelling, from bedtime tales to fanciful myths to lifesaving epics. He’s also got a few things to say about gender inequality, slavery and other examples of man’s inhumanity, and the cruelty of uncontrollable circumstances.

History, religion, sociology all effortlessly combined with a ‘larger-than-life epic journey of a timeless love story’ … oh … and all that ‘set amidst the sweeping sands of time.’ HA! Got to say that twice!

The secret is most definitely out: Habibi is not to be missed.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali with Delphine Minoui, translated by Linda Coverdale

“In Khardji [Yemen], the village where I was born, women are not taught how to make choices,” Nujood Ali explains. Her mother married her father at age 16 without protest, and said nothing when her husband brought home another wife four years later. “It was with that same resignation that I at first agreed to my marriage … At my age, you don’t ask yourself many questions.” She cried about missing school.

Nujood was a small child of 10 when, in February 2008, she was married to a man more than three times her age. He paid Nujood’s father the equivalent to $750. He promised “not to touch Nujood before the year after she has her first period”; he lied. Nujood endured two months of rape, while her in-laws aided in her abuse and torture. In April 2008, driven by a sheer will to survive, Nujood got herself to the city courthouse, stood before a judge, and announced “‘I want a divorce.’”

Her unprecedented tenacity took Nujood on a dizzying journey towards freedom. Her lawyer, Shada Nasser, a feminist human rights lawyer who has made her own headlines, quickly became Nujood’s hero. Together, Nujood and Shada made history when Nujood became the first child bride in Yemen to win a divorce. Other young girls bravely followed suit, not only in Yemen, but in other neighboring countries, as well. The battle is hardly over: the traditional practice of taking child brides remains a societal ill in Yemen and beyond. “[T]here is even a tribal proverb: ‘To guarantee a happy marriage, marry a nine-year-old,’” surely an eerie echo of the prophet Muhammad’s marriage to his 9-year-old favorite wife Aisha.

Nevertheless, Nujood remains an international inspiration, her courage spread further by Glamour magazine which named her and Shada Nasser as “Women of the Year 2008.” Written with award-winning journalist Delphine Minoui, Nujood’s memoir is simple and direct, while it shatters and motivates. Nujood is now just entering her teenage-hood, is living with her family keeping an especially diligent eye on her younger sister, and most importantly, is back in school (her goal is to be a lawyer someday).

With her country currently in turmoil, her government in historical transition, Nujood has perhaps an unprecedented possibility to advocate for further change. At 10, she found her voice and made history; at 15, at 20, and beyond, what more will she do?

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2010 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, .Translation, Middle Eastern